Federal officials are now telling us to eat less red meat and to stay away from “added sugar” and saturated fats while consuming more fruits and vegetables.
They’re also telling us that cholesterol isn’t quite as bad as we thought, so eggs are OK once in awhile, especially if they replace a steak or hamburger on your plate.
Confusing, right? How can you keep tabs on these diet recommendations while keeping track of calories at the same time (and without going hungry)?
It’s something nutritionists and dieticians have been debating since the “Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee” was unveiled last month.
The guidelines still need to be adopted by the federal Department of Agriculture, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services. They are put out every five years as a recommended list of what Americans should be eating.
Telling People What to Eat (Without Being a Jerk)
Whatever the final guidelines look like, food companies, restaurants, and doctors will play a role in spreading the news.
Which approach works best? Is listing calories on a menu effective? Should people focus on their sugar, overall calorie, or saturated fat consumption? Or should they try to restrict certain foods?
Recent studies have shown that restaurant menus featuring calorie information and other nutritional data don’t necessarily convince people to make smarter food choices. Some data does contend the postings help, although they report the effect is minimal.
Dr. Christopher Ochner, a weight loss and nutrition specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said he tailors his approach to showing nutritional data to patients depending on “where they’re at.”
“If they have never looked at a nutrition label before, I will tell them to look at them and to just pay attention to the big things,” he said.
For example, he will ask patients to look at calories per serving and how many servings they’re consuming, as well as sugar and saturated fat content.
For label-savvy patients, on the other hand, he recommends they look at other factors — such as fiber so they can calculate net carbs or the calorie-to-protein ratio.
“As a clinician, I would emphasize that calories consumed is one of the most significant factors in determining body weight,” he said.
People who want to follow the guidelines should look at their diets. Where are you getting added sugar and saturated fat?
Next, find ways to lower those levels without reducing the appeal of food. You can do this by turning to lower-fat versions of food, or choosing stevia over sugar, he explained.
What people shouldn’t do is try to make drastic changes to comply with the guidelines, Ochner said.
“The key is in figuring out how to make the foods you love to eat healthier for you without reducing flavor,” he said. “Put the time into figuring this out and you can eat healthy foods you love for the rest of your life.”
Food label changes mandated by the guidelines would make it easier for people to identify things like added sugars.
Ochner said consumers are becoming more health-conscious and are looking for information that they can understand and use to make practical choices.
“These changes are definitely significant and are long overdue,” he said. “Given that nutrition labels have been notoriously difficult to understand, these improvements should make them more accessible and less intimidating to use by the average person.”
Where’s the Beef?
One of the more hotly disputed parts of the proposed guidelines is the recommendation that people eat less red meat.
Instead of steaks and hamburgers, the guidelines suggest people focus on fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. Those are all food groups linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and other ailments, the report noted.
When the last diet report came out in 2010, it urged moderate meat consumption. The new report states that “a higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to lower intake.”
Meat industry organizations have come out smoking in their opposition.
According to the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), data has linked red and processed meats to cancer, but it also associates meat with health benefits.
“It is also unfortunate the Committee [DGAC] is generalizing about an entire category of foods,” the NAMI said in a statement.
They note that processed meat and poultry products are diverse and include low-fat, low- sodium, gluten-free, organic, and other healthful options. They say meat products “satisfy hunger” and “help control weight.”
Dr. Gerald Bernstein, director of the Diabetes Management Program at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City, disagrees. He believes the meat guideline changes are positive.
“The consumption of meat has been excessive because it's there to be had,” Bernstein said.
“Reducing meat consumption is a matter of breaking habits.”
For example, 4-ounce portions of beef are common in Japan while servings of 12 ounces or more are common in the United States.
Bernstein said people should look to sources of protein other than meat because protein intake is still important for our diets. Eggs are a good place to start, although past studies have warned about eating too many eggs due to high cholesterol content in the yolk. Newer science suggests eggs are still healthy because the egg cholesterol may not raise human cholesterol levels.
“Increasing protein consumption by eating more eggs is a blessing, especially knowing the cholesterol in the yolk will not affect blood levels,” Bernstein said.
Sharon Palmer, a dietitian and author of “Plant-Powered for Life,” explained that the DGAC said the data doesn’t support watching cholesterol levels, but that doesn’t mean people can chow down on bacon and butter.
Instead, pay attention to saturated fat levels. The committee said saturated fat should be no more than 10 percent of a person’s total daily calories.
“Though headlines persist suggesting that ‘saturated fat is no longer bad,’ that is not the conclusion that the DGAC came to,” Palmer said.
“Don’t worry about counting milligrams of cholesterol in food,” she said. “But do focus on eating healthy, unsaturated fats — found in olives, nuts, avocados, vegetable oils — [instead of] saturated fats found in animal foods.”
Not Feeling So Sweet?
Another part of the report that’s turned heads is the sugar recommendation.
The committee encourages people to limit sugar to 10 percent of their daily diet — that’s about 12 teaspoons a day or 50 grams of added sugar on average. The change would allow more sugar than recommended by the American Heart Association, but it’s still a strict regimen.
Palmerexplained there are about 4 grams in a teaspoon of sugar. She notes that most of our sugars come from processed foods such as soda sweetened with sugar.
“The recommendation is to cut back on added sugars — those added to foods — not naturally occurring, such as that found naturally in fruit and vegetables,” she said.
Ochner said the guidelines could have an impact on what food makers sell and grocery stores stock.
“Hopefully this will not only help people to become aware of just how much added sugar they are ingesting, but also get manufacturers to start lowering the amount of added sugars,” Ochner said.
He noted the average can of soda has 8 teaspoons of sugar. The recommended daily allowance for women is just 6 teaspoons.What should we do to cut down on sugar without feeling totally deprived?
“You can train your sense of sweetness by cutting back and getting used to the natural flavors of foods,” Palmer said.
When reading a nutrition label, look for “added sugars” — not the total grams of sugar on the label that includes natural sugars, she added.
Ochner believes the guideline changes will piggy-back on a larger trend toward healthier eating.
“Trends are an extremely potent driver of behavioral change, so I am very happy to see that it is trendy to be more health conscious and aware of what we are eating,” Ochner said. “People also need to be aware of where they get their information with regard to diet because most of it is incorrect or misleading. Pay attention to the source.”